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Shark expert Craig O'Connell: LI is a 'shark researcher's dream'

Craig O'Connell from "Return to Shark Island," which

Craig O'Connell from "Return to Shark Island," which airs Aug. 1 on Discovery Channel. Credit: Discovery Channel/Nick Alexander

It's hardly a secret that sharks abound in Long Island waters. But lesser known are those who study them, and work hard to save them and — frankly — who love them. Craig O'Connell certainly qualifies. He and his wife, Nicolle O'Connell, are co-founders of Montauk-based O'Seas Conservation Foundation, which yokes its various conservation efforts to youth education programs.  Both are doctors — he's a marine biologist, she's a pediatrician. 

I spoke recently with O'Connell about his work — his twitter handle is @TheSharkdoctor — and also about his forthcoming Discovery channel Shark Week special, "Return to Shark Island" (Thursday at 8 p.m.). This is the sequel to his 2015 program about ongoing efforts to prevent bull shark attacks around the remote Indian Ocean island of Reunion; many of those attacks have been fatal. 

What are your ties to Montauk? 
I grew up an hour north of New York City but every single weekend since, I was six or seven we went fishing off southern Long Island to catch fluke, bluefish, striped bass. I grew up going to Long Island and spent my summers in Montauk, which is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

What is the shark ecosystem around Long Island?
I started my nonprofit six years, working off Jones Beach where I caught a great white nine feet long. (As part of his research, sharks are caught, tagged and released.) Two years ago, I did [the Discovery special] "Sharks and the City: New York" and for that we went out and found juvenile whites almost every single day, including sand sharks, Sanduskys, makos, blue. [Long Island] is pretty much a shark researcher's dream.

Where are they mostly found? 
What's fascinating to me is that sharks are not necessarily found where people would think to look for them [but] where you see an abundance of prey, that's where they are, and one of the hot spots is right off Montauk Point which is also a productive fishing area. We have a diverse population [but] what's really neat is that as the water temperature changes, different species show up. In one week, we had thresher sharks off the beach, and last week we had hammerheads. 

Bull sharks are the focus of "Return to Shark Island" — there have been ten fatal shark attacks off Reunion since 2006, and two this year alone. Are there bull sharks here? 
I've heard reports of [one] being caught in the Hudson, but the thing that will be interesting in the coming years is global warming, and as the water temperature changes, so do the movements of the sharks. The water will get warmer here over time and some of the warmer water species will be more common here too [and] where [bulls] are having their babies now tends to be a little farther north on the East Coast, so we could have more in the coming decades. But so far, I've not seen one, but seen everything else.

Readers, or at least swimmers, may want to know about danger. Is it, umm, safe to go back in the water or was it ever safe not to? 
"One potential threat, large great whites, move past Long Island when we aren't utilizing the water as much. They pass by in May and June, making their way to Cape Cod, just before the summer season and come back around November, making their way to Florida.

So safe? 
I would say it's pretty darned safe. There are sharks out there, but I think that what I've learned from being out there all the time is that people are most likely sharing water with sharks every single day, and the fact that they are not interacting is an indication that they are safe. 

Has there been an increase in population around Long Island? 
Yes, there has been, for some major sharks, like sandbars and whites. The government informs us that there is population recovery because we've protected these species. But the short-fin mako has plummeted to the point where they are endangered.

Tell me about O'Seas. 
It was always my dream to establish my own shark research facility and wanted to do it in my own backyard because for ten years I've been traveling every few weeks to different countries, but wanted to be home with family. We're conducting shark research, but taking youth out on our boat every day this summer; we have six kids every day, and just today we captured a nine-foot blue and tagged it, and sometimes they'll be out there and see a great white. It's exciting and what's cool is that were not only educating the young but motivating them in shark conservation.

Why are sharks so vitally important? 
Many reasons but the key reason is that without sharks, the oceans will become extremely unhealthy. They have the ability to regulate everything in an entire ecosystem, and if you lose them, we'll lose the fish they feed on.

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